What famed horticulturist Luther Burbank is to Santa Rosa, Calif., Hulda Klager is to Woodland. Burbank was her inspiration. To learn botany, she studied his writings, seed catalogs and gardening books. The two even corresponded. Both owned the rare knack for picking the right plants to crossbreed.
After Hulda’s birth in Germany in 1864, the Thiel family immigrated to the United States with 2-year-old Hulda just after the Civil War. Inching west, first farming in Wisconsin and then Minnesota, the Thiels eventually found themselves in the Woodland vicinity in 1877, when Hulda was 13. Their wagon bogged down in the Lewis River bottoms. Seeing a nearby cabin, the family moved in for the night. The following day, stunned by roses near the cabin’s door, they decide to stay and build a home.
World renowned for her lilacs, Hulda started plant propagation in 1905 because mealy apples didn’t peel easily or make tasty pies for her husband, Frank Klager, whom she married at 15. After solving her apple pie problem, she dabbled in dahlias before turning to the lilacs that made her internationally famous. In 1926, a story in The Oregonian said her 5 acres was “credited as the best collection in the United States” and credited Klager with 60 varieties.
“I can tell as soon as a seedling blooms,” she told The Oregonian in 1935, “what it is going to amount to.” She explained that all breeders seek lilacs whose florets are incurved, double, and show two shades of color. She liked it when these hybrids reached what she called “the end of the road,” meaning they could no longer be improved because they lacked pollen and seeds. She named some of her lilacs for Washington towns, like Kalama and the wine-red Kelso.
Her life along Woodland’s Lewis River flood plain was hard. She had to build up the ground 7 feet around the house she and Frank built. Floods in 1928 and 1933 almost washed away her garden. Finally, a 1948 deluge did, forcing the 77-year-old horticulturist to start from scratch. Not wanting her visitors to see anything but the best, she closed her garden for rebuilding. In 1954, she reopened it on her 83rd birthday. That day, visitors drew in the sight and smell of 260 varieties of lilacs.
When she died in 1960 at 96, Klager’s garden was almost erased again. Her granddaughter and husband tried to keep it running but lacked funding and sold the place to Cowlitz County. The county planned to raze it. Eventually, the couple engineered a land swap with the county. Next, garden clubs labored to list the Klager homestead on the National Register of Historic Places. May 10, 1976, it was dedicated as a historic site and reopened.
In 2012, Oregon writer Jane Kirkpatrick published a well-researched historical novel, “Where Lilacs Still Bloom,” fictionalizing Hulda Klager’s personal life and flower breeding.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.